Mark O’Leary on Humility in Build-Outs

Native Montanan Mark O’Leary effectively bridges the gap between design and construction because he’s literally done it all

Radiating steel screens privatize the workstation areas from the central hubs with an epoxy painted speedometer off-setting open, semi-open, and concealed environments. The simple material palette and geometry intertwines the spaces while subtle shifts allow them to individually respond to varying visual and acoustical privacy desires. Patrik Argast

Mark O’Leary is so humble it hurts. He doesn’t lead with the fact that he’s built out enormous and beautiful corporate spaces in Silicon Valley, Holland, Dubai, and Alpharetta, Georgia. Nor perhaps the story of spending summers building decks for New Jersians as a side gig and renovating every room in his house for fun. O’Leary almost immediately begins with the number of times he’s been laid off.

Mark O’Leary, Director of Project Management & Design, CDK Global Courtesy of CDK Global

Born and raised in Montana, the current director of project management and design of corporate real estate for CDK Global is able to recall with stunning precision the time and circumstances of each position he’s held that ended before he was ready for it. But approaching his sixth decade, O’Leary has built so much in so many vastly different environments that even a humble mentality can’t belittle the obvious joy he exhibits still after all of these years.

The builder has found a way to touch almost every corner of the construction journey—from drafting with T-square and triangles to the Monday morning move-in of corporate staff into a new, custom-designed office space—and he remains enthusiastic and excited about kicking off new projects.

Drafting a Future

O’Leary knew he wanted to be an architect since the fourth grade. His father spent much time doing renovations on the family home, and the young O’Leary caught the bug. “I was arguably the best draftsman in my high school, although a few of my friends might challenge me on that,” O’Leary says, laughing. “I loved doing technical drawings with the T-square and triangles.” He would spend his early years as a carpenter on a Montana ranch, as well as working for the Montana State Highway Department as a surveyor’s aid on highway bridge construction projects.

When the Anaconda Copper Company went under in 1980, O’Leary’s father left his management job for more opportunities in New Jersey, and his son would eventually follow, taking a pay cut in the process to join a small architectural firm. Then came his big break at AT&T Bell Labs, where he initially scored a draftsman position in its facilities department. “It was a pretty big deal, being a kid from Montana going to work at Bell Labs,” O’Leary remembers. “I don’t like to boast, but it was something I was pleased with and proud of.”

It was at Bell Labs, and offshoot Lucent Technologies Corporate Real Estate, where O’Leary would build out a whole new skill set in commercial real estate design and construction. “I had always pictured myself doing residential work because that’s what I understood,” O’Leary says. “Commercial just seemed out of the question because it just had to be too complex.” Now having built hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space on almost every continent, O’Leary is willing to admit that he was able to rise to the occasion.

Exposed ductwork rhythmically follows the flow of the workstation and conference spaces which are joined by metal drapery fronted meeting rooms and plywood planes cantilevered off wide flange columns. Patrik Argast

Greasing the Wheel

The director says that part of his success comes down to the way he manages. “If you look at a hierarchical organizational structure with a project, you have your stakeholders and your client above you, and then it cascades down to a lot of different support people and vendors and consultants,” O’Leary explains. “But I’ve always thought of it not as a pyramid but more of a wheel. The project is in the center and all of these spokes that collaborate and give their best effort to make the project a success. From the stakeholders to the people making sure that there’s no dust on the work surfaces on move-in day, these people are contributing something incredibly valuable.”

O’Leary’s respect for tradesmen is evident. “I’ve been doing this for so long, and I’ve learned so much by being in the field,” he says. “Sometimes a detail by an architect just doesn’t work, and 8 times out of 10, the trade contractors know exactly how to solve it as they have seen it before. I value their input and always give them credit.”

Galvanized conduits wrap into plywood tops and steel tube legs to create long library-style tables for quiet, focused work at the “Fan Coils.” Patrik Argast

The fact that O’Leary himself has spent countless years swinging a hammer on his own projects helps bridge the “conception-to-execution” challenges that can often hamper a build.


A Global Footprint

In six years at CDK Global, the projects have just kept coming. There’s the 76,000 square-foot Technology Development Center in San Jose, California, designed by the innovative architectural firm MODULUS, specifically architect David Fenster. “David is very creative and distinctly different from anyone I’ve ever worked with,” O’Leary says. “The general approach to corporate interiors is to have a little architectural design fun in the high-profile, high-visibility spaces; and in the open workspaces, to keep it simple and ‘vanilla.’ But David Fenster has made every part of this building interesting.”

Encouraged by CDK Global CEO Brian Krzanich, O’Leary said Krzanich’s design focus has been influenced primarily by the automotive sector, which is the core business for CDK Global. The CEO’s vision for the workspaces wasn’t the dealership showroom but the service bay. This evolved into the warehouse industrial look that includes exposed structure and applied metal surfaces with some auto-centric flashes to remind those working under the hood that what they do is valuable and essential to CDK Global customers. “Our general contractor team at South Bay Construction have said they’ve never seen an office interior like this before, and that’s saying something for a Silicon Valley office,” O’Leary says. “This will be a signature location for CDK Global.”

‘The Park’ creates an open work, break, and reprieve area flooded by southerly light and surrounded by banquettes with leather cushioned seating and built-in planters. Patrik Argast

The work completed by O’Leary and his external teams hasn’t gone unnoticed by other partners either. “We at Architectural Systems are extremely proud of our work with Mark O’Leary and the team at CDK Global, South Bay Construction, and MODULUS Architects,” says Gordon Bentley, Architectural Systems’ president. “Mark did an impressive job at bridging the gap between client needs, the architect’s vision, and schedule. Pulling off such an industrially elegant build was a reward in itself.”

There are other projects, too, like a 120,000 square-foot build-out in Cincinnati, Ohio. Then Paris, Johannesburg, and Dublin, where the proud Irishman was able to pay tribute to his ancestors, albeit while working long hours tying up loose ends left by the contractor. O’Leary was particularly touched that the CDK Global Dublin team intentionally scheduled their office Christmas party early so O’Leary could be in attendance.

Together with project manager Donna Bihner, whom O’Leary describes as “an essential and critical part of the success I’ve had here,” the lean CDK Global team continues to find new and innovative ways to build all over the world. And O’Leary seems as excited about the future as ever.